Friday, January 20, 2006

Floating World 101

Now that I’ve finally figured out how to add links to Amazon (I am, shall we say, technologically challenged), I thought I’d mention a few favorite books about Japanese nightlife and geisha and courtesans, etc. as a background to my story in Best American Erotica, “Ukiyo.”

The best nonfiction book about geisha to my mind is still Liza Dalby’s Geisha, and I’m glad the book had a second release in the wake of Memoirs of a Geisha’s huge success. Dalby “became” a geisha in Kyoto’s Pontocho district as part of her research for her doctoral dissertation, and the book is very sensitive and engaging and makes you feel like you are part of that world, albeit as a foreign visitor. Other books I’ve enjoyed are Anne Allison’s Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club, which is also based on an anthropologist’s direct experience of the hostess culture. Hostesses are really a modern form of geisha—in spite of the stripper-like naked female legs on the cover, hostesses mainly sell attention and conversation. Jodi Cobb’s Geisha provides a gorgeous photographic glimpse into the “forbidden” world of the geisha. (Hey, would you even be interested if it wasn’t “forbidden”?) Cecilia Segawa Siegle’s Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan is a fascinating study of the queen of the floating world in its heyday a couple of hundred years ago, although it is more scholarly than titillating. It was an invaluable reference for my story “Courtesan with a Lover,” which appeared in The Gettysburg Review. Another inspiration for that story was Timon Screech’s Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan, 1700-1820. This is an art history book, but you learn so much about classical erotic prints, it will add to your knowledge and enjoyment of “spring pictures” immeasurably. Plus the pictures themselves are fascinating.

Finally, I have a soft spot in my heart for the sometimes-sexist study of Japanese sexuality by Nicholas Bornoff, Pink Samurai: Love, Marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan. An Amazon review notes that the book is no longer contemporary as it was published in 1991 and I have to agree. If you’re looking for tips on where to go to experience the latest sex trade fad, you’re better off looking elsewhere. Given the Japanese love of the latest thing, the shinhatsubai (“new release”) mentality, this book is very last century. But the truth is, most of us floating world junkies are interested in what has lasted over time, in Japan’s enduring charms, and Bornoff takes you right into this world, to the point of undoing his own zipper on occasion. (Plus, a used copy is $0.43, semen stains optional).

But what about the Japanese view of geisha and the floating world? Mineko Iwasaki’s Geisha: A Life, is a true-to-life memoir of a geisha, which provides an interesting perspective on Arthur Golden’s bestselling tale. I’ve spent too many hours reading Japanese literature to miss a chance to plug some of my favorite stories and novels from the great masters. The granddaddy of them all is Ihara Saikaku and his masterpiece is Life of an Amorous Woman, a humorous tale of a woman in 17th century Japan whose libido takes her on some interesting adventures. It was banned in Japan during World War II (as were parts of the Tale of Genji) and you won’t have any trouble figuring out why. It’s not just the sex. The Amorous Woman is a true iconoclast.

Proceeding roughly in chronological order, I can’t recommend Higuchi Ichiyo’s story “Child’s Play” highly enough. Higuchi lived on the edge of the Yoshiwara and her tale of a fledgling prostitute and a priest-in-training gradually accepting their fate is touching and haunting and oddly contemporary in its sensitivity. If you want to get a sense of the roue’s side of the floating world experience, you can’t go wrong with Nagai Kafu or Tanizaki Jun’ichiro. The Ohisa character from “Ukiyo” is lifted from Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles. And don’t forget Nobel-Prize-winning Kawabata Yasunari’s great novel Snow Country. The first few times I read it, I found it almost irritating in its preciousness, but I’ve grown to love it and even understand it—to a degree. At any rate, it’s stayed with me and Komako is one of the most appealing—and saddest--geisha I’ve encountered. Okay, this is my last recommendation (aren’t you glad you didn’t take my Introduction to Japanese Literature course?), but I must include Enchi Fumiko’s Masks. It’s not really about the floating world, although it does contain an illicit encounter in Atami, one of Japan’s favorite places to commit adultery, but it’s worth a read. If you’re a feminist, you won’t be disappointed! And it has plenty of beautiful, mysterious and passionate Japanese women in it to please the rest of you.

Happy reading! And don’t worry, your ten page paper isn’t due until after the break ;-)

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